Neighbourhoods save their shrines

by Sahina Shrestha, Nepali Times, March 16, 2022

It is not just the Valley's main temples that need to be protected, but also the small neighbourhood stupa

Kathmandu, Nepal
-- Kathmandu’s skyline used to be outlined by slanting tile roofs and gilded temple spires, the towns were surrounded by gold and green terrace fields.

The chiva in Bare Chuka, Pyapha was missing its finial and was in a poor condition. Last September, the Chiva Chaitya Organisation restored the stupa adding a finial and raising it to an appropriate height. All Photos: CHIVA CHAITYA ORGANISATION

All this is now a thing of the past. The Valley is a vast concrete maze of apartment blocks and haphazard highrises under a perpetual miasma of pollution.

There was an age when the very name ‘Kathmandu’ evoked a tranquil townscape trapped in time, nestled in an emerald valley amidst a backdrop of icy Himalayan peaks shining against an azure sky. How different from the chaotic, noisy and dirty Kathmandu of today.

Amidst the Valley’s famous temples and monasteries were lesser known chiva shrines that dotted just about every neighbourhood of the towns. Also known as chaitya, these small sacred stupa were also an important part of the Kathmandu Valley civilisation.

While most of the temples and monuments have been preserved and restored, the chiva have slowly disappeared — devoured by relentless urban expansion, road widening projects, privatisation of communal land, as well as human greed and neglect.

Now a group of heritage conservationist is making an inventory of votive structures that were once so ubiquitous in the semi-public and public spaces of the Valley so that they can be restored and protected from further destruction.

“One of the problems is that people and the government do not recognise the chiva as part of our heritage,” explains Amar Tuladhar of the Chiva Chaitya Organisation. “If a temple is damaged, it will be restored, but a chiva most likely will not. These votive structures are an integral part of our identity.”

Call them chiva, chaitya or stupa, they all represent Buddhist altars that serve as a network of shrines that were indispensable features of Kathmandu’s ancient courtyards. The shrines are still worshipped everyday and are the focal point of many rituals.

Sumati Bajracharya, Buddhist scholar and author of the book Stupa ra Chaitya (The Origin of Buddhist Art and Architecture), explains that during the time of Buddha, a place of rest or meditation was referred to as chaitya. Later they became memorials for deceased family members.

“Before Buddha achieved nirvana, he instructed his corporal relics to be buried in stupa or earthen mounds,” she says. “Buddhist scriptures also mention that building a chaitya accures merit to donors. So people built them wherever they migrated.”

Chaitya are not exclusively funerary monuments, but represent dharmakaya, the transcendental form and hence are the focus of public worship. “Chaitya can be built anywhere whether a private, a semi-public or a public space, but it has to be accessible so that people can circumambulate them,” says Bajracharya.

Growing up in Bhindyo at the historic heart of Kathmandu, Aprila Sthapit had heard that her ancestors had built a chiva near their neighbourhood Bhimsen temple. When her father was still alive, he maintained the stupa. But over time, it fell into disrepair.

As the city expanded, the chiva somehow ended up next to a road. Careless drivers often bumped into it, chipping away bits of the structure.  Like other residents of the area, Sthapit would offer prayers every morning at the shrine but did not think much about repairing it.

Last month, Chiva Chaitya offered to restore the stupa. “When they approached us, we did not think they would actually restore it,” says Sthapit. “But they did all the work and did not even ask for money.”

It was while they were on a walk one day that Pramodh Kasaa, Prabin Shakya and Amar Tuladhar stumbled upon a chaitya at the Shobha Bhagwati neighbourhood that was missing a finial. Something had to be done, so they decided to form Chiva Chaitya and began first by conducting a stupa census, counting the shrines, and even recording details like who built it and when.

For the next few years along with two other team members, Suban Tuladhar and Ashish Manandhar, they dedicated their holidays and free time photographing chaitya in different parts of the Valley. They also tried to make locals aware of the value of these structures.

Soon, they started receiving requests to restore damaged stupa. In December 2020, Chiva Chaitya completed the first restoration in Swayambhu. By now, they have completed minor and major restorations on 25 chiva, and have drawn up an inventory of over 1,200 stupa which they are geolocating on an interactive online map.

In the initial days, team members put their own money into this important work. Then they started crowdfunding. Now, as their work became better known, local communities pitched in. In 2020, the group got support from the World Monument Fund which also included the chiva and chaitya of Kathmandu on its 2020 watchlist.

“We noticed that even when people were aware of the importance of chiva and wanted to repair it, they did not have the budget or did not know whom to approach, so we simplified the process for them. We did not want the work to stop because of money,” says Prabin Shakya of Chiva Chaitya Organisation.

When Ishwar Man Dangol of Pyapha wanted to restore the chiva in his chuka, he realised that the local ward office did not have a dedicated fund allocated for it, he did not even know where to find the right artisans to work on it.

The family which built the chaitya had long since moved away, and the property surrounding the courtyard was inherited by eight others. After he found out about Chiva Chaitya through a friend, he got in touch with them. The team surveyed the site, held a meeting with the locals and restored it.

“We were worried about the cost but they did not even bring it up. After the restoration, we locals felt that we needed to do something to support them so we talked to the ward office to compensate them,” says Dangol.

But it has not been easy for the team. Some projects had to be abandoned because of lack of local support.

“Engaging the community is very important to us,” says Amar Tuladhar. “In the long run, it is imperative that they understand the importance of chiva in their locality and work to conserve it. We want to pass the baton on to local groups eventually.”

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